Friday, December 15, 2006


Taco Bell executives insist the chain’s outlets are completely safe again, but the kid-packed town of Port Washington, N.Y., apparently didn’t get the memo. A unit there, smack in the hot zone where dozens of Taco Bell patrons were sickened by E. coli in recent weeks, is usually a choice place to observe the current waistband heights and mating rituals of the skateboarding masses. But a visit during dinner tonight found the place completely empty. The only customer was an absolute imbecile who risked his health and his family’s well-being for the asinine reason of doing research for a blog that probably will be the death of him, unless he’s murdered first by his spouse, as one commentator put it. But I think my wife is starting to calm down.

Of course, it didn’t help my cause to parrot Taco Bell’s assertions that its outlets are safer than an Idaho mother’s milk, and that germ sniffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have adjudged the outbreak officially over. Her exact response: “And you believe those idiots?”

As I saw during my visit to our local Taco Bell, she is far, far from being the only person with that conviction. After reading about outbreaks involving spinach, tomatoes, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Taco John’s, lettuce and Olive Garden, she’s written off the chain sector as the Chernobyl of the restaurant industry, with inherent dangers that only a Borat-caliber moron would brave for the sake of a chalupa. And the people safeguarding that noxious lot, she and others seem convinced, are as spin-doctor-y and smoke-spouting as the Moscow bureaucrats who tried to explain away the clouds that had cows in Belgium veritably glowing with radiation.

That skepticism came to mind as I was sitting in the Port Washington Taco Bell and watching the two persons on duty. They were cleaning when I came into the store; they stopped and washed their hands before one took my order and the other prepared it; and then they plunged back into their cleaning spree. The unit made a hospital O.R. seem like the men’s room at Penn Station.

Yet a crowd was at the Burger King next door, and the pair running the Taco Bell looked resigned to a shift that would pass with the speed of a kindergarten’s dance recital.

The industry has lost its credibility, yet it’s not doing enough to restore it. Sure, it’s looking at various ways it can prevent food-safety crises, and that’s a great thing. Taco Bell, for instance, said twice this week that it plans to lead the formation of a coalition that would set new safeguards for the industry’s supply chain. That ad hoc group would include competitors, regulators and suppliers, it said.

A noble gesture, indeed. And something that surely shows Taco Bell’s seriousness about averting catastrophes like the recent E. coli outbreaks. Except that a group very much like it already exists. It was formed this fall, around the time of the spinach-related E. coli outbreak, by the National Restaurant Association, with the express purpose of setting standards for produce. Why doesn’t Taco Bell know about that if it’s really serious about fostering safety on a macro level?

Indeed, the chain needs to watch what it says and does. I participated in the media conference that the chain hastily called on Monday night (it alerted the general media 26 minutes ahead of the start time, or about 5:34 in the evening). Taco Bell president Greg Creed was the featured presenter. But I kept expecting Rod Serling to butt in.

Creed gave the impression that extensive testing had found no traces of E. coli in any ingredients used by the Taco Bells in the four-state area of the outbreak. Then I asked him about white onions. Oh, yeah, testing did find some E. coli in those, but it wasn’t the same strain as the one that had made everyone sick, he said.

Ah, I see. It’s a completely different contamination. A flukey coincidence. But, um, what about that assertion that all ingredients are safe?

He also said that federal officials had identified lettuce, cheese and beef as the statistically probable causes of the outbreak. But since it couldn’t be beef or cheese—the former’s cooked, the latter’s pasteurized—lettuce had to be the culprit.

Well, if it couldn’t be cheese or beef, why did the Centers for Disease Control say those ingredients were also under suspicion? And why did Taco Bell throw out shipments of those foodstuffs from a particular supplier and then change vendors? Wasn’t it all safe by virtue of the processes that prompted Taco Bell to declare lettuce the “most probable” cause?

And it didn’t exactly calm fears when it stressed that it only used a small portion of the lettuce that was under suspicion. Creed emphasized that Taco Bell buys only 20 percent of the implicated vendor’s shredded lettuce, which meant that a lot of tainted greens could’ve been floating out in the market. Of course, that raises the likelihood that E. coli victims could have ingested the bug at other places, a significant finding when you’ve already been sued by two parties, with more lawsuits almost certain to follow.

If my one-unit mystery-shop was any indication, the chain is doing a great job of safeguarding the public (and, indeed, no one disputes that the problem was an ingredient shipped into the unit in a contaminated form, rather than any mistake the chain or its units might have made). But it needs to allay the concerns of folks like my wife. Because I'd like to get my stuffed burrito without a dessert of abuse. And that couple working at my local unit sure looked as if they'd appreciate the business.

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